Across the Bay

Monday, April 23, 2007

"Elections without Choice"

Ammar Abdulhamid has been doing formidable work -- the first of its kind -- covering the sham Syrian parliamentary elections over at his new bilingual site, the Syrian Elector.

There are no real independents running, no dissidents either. Parliament is a useless institution in Syria with no power. Two-thirds of it are reserved for the ruling Baath and its Front allies. As such, the results of the elections are a foregone conclusion.

So why hold elections altogether? I tried to briefly touch on this question in a short essay I wrote for Ammar's new site. (Also, make sure to read David Schenker's essay on the elections in the Weekly Standard).

Update: The essay is now also available in Arabic.

I'm reproducing a slightly edited version of it here:

Syrian Elector, Washington (01:24 am Eastern/08:24 am Damascus) –
Legitimation, consolidation and communication are the three main points behind the current elections, so notes researcher Tony Badran, a fellow at the Center for Liberty in the Middle East. Legitimation of the regime through the creation of a democratic facade, consolidation of power through the inclusion of businessmen, merchants and clerics who run as independents in the elections on shadow lists supported by the regime, and communication with the Syrian people themselves and the international community, with a defiant message to the effect that the "regime is in full control domestically, and it will not allow dissent. The chaos as in Iraq."

"Elections without Choice"

Syria's is a totalitarian regime, run essentially by a family with an increasingly narrow base. Syria's institutions are weak, its parliament a mere rubber-stamp organ for the President.

As Syrianist Volker Perthes wrote in his book,
The Political Economy of Syria under Asad, "Parliament itself has remained very much on the margins of political life. ... Not surprisingly, electoral participation in legislative elections remained low, generally well under 20 percent."

Indeed, in a chapter for a book with the same title as this essay, Elizabeth Picard wrote about the 1973 parliamentary elections under Assad Sr.: "Syrian journalists, politicians and citizens are astonished that a researcher should show interest in the electoral side of their country's political life. They emphasise the subordinate character of the People's Council, and of the process of its election."

So why the fanfare? Why does the Assad regime go through the motions of a sham election whose outcome is practically predetermined?

In Perthes' view, elections represented "an element of regime legitimation by establishing legal institutions and formalized procedures."

Similarly, Picard's answer was that the regime chose to allow elections "because they considered the election to be a means of consolidating their power."

Moreover, Perthes adds, the distribution of parliamentary seats also serves as "a means of patronage." This function is very much at the heart of the current elections, with lists carrying candidates like Mumammad Hamsho -- an entrepreneur who serves as a front for the business interests of Maher Assad -- and candidates fielded by the Akhras family -- Bashar's wife's family -- and so on. The regime thus fields its own clients, as well as the candidates of the Baath and the National Progressive Front (in fact, Perthes points out that the expansion of parliament was intended to include clients from the business class, but not at the expense of the Baath and the Front allies).

Elections thus also serve as a way to restructure the regime's base. This began in the 1990s, well before Bashar's inheritance of power, when, as I noted in my article on the Syrian opposition, businessmen were allowed to win election to parliament and publicly criticize the slow pace of economic liberalization.

Bashar used this tactic when he allowed the so-called Damascus Spring, only to dispense rapidly with its leaders, including reformist MPs like Riad Seif and Ma'moun Homsi, jailing them each for five years and harassing them after their release. The purpose, as Homsi recently said, was to give "a lesson to all MPs and to anyone who tries to criticize the regime." The reason for the imprisonment, as Gary Gambill wrote, was that Seif and the others directly criticized not the so-called "old guard," but Bashar's inner circle.

As such, Bashar was merely following his father's play book from the 90s. As Perthes commented at the time, "there are certain red lines... which must not be crossed, neither in public nor in parliamentary discussion. Any critique of the
President, of the personality cult around him, or of his policy directions is off limits, as would be a discussion of the role of the security apparatus, the sectarian composition of its leadership [think Michel Kilo's "Syrian Obituaries" article], the spread of corruption among central regime figures [think Aref Dalilah's and Riad Seif's articles], and several foreign and military-policy questions such as, for instance, Syrian policies and behaviour in Lebanon [think the "Beirut-Damascus Declaration"]. These questions are, in the first place, not considered to be parliament's business." (Emphasis and notes mine).

Indeed, this time around, Bashar took no chances with potential reformist independents, and therefore, all candidates are either Front members or clients of the regime.

The latter are not exclusively from the business class. They are also co-opted Islamists and clerics, like Muhammad Habash and the son of Syria's Mufti Hassoun. This is in line with the regime's policy of Islamization and Islamist Arabism which serves as the basis of its legitimacy.

One of the purposes of elections noted by Picard, aside from
Legitimation, is Communication. It could be said that the message the regime wants to send both to the international community as well as to the Syrians is one of defiance and intransigence. "The regime is in full control domestically, and it will not allow dissent." The alternative, as it has been telling the people, is chaos as in Iraq.

Bashar summarized it in the following statement: "For Syria, the important thing is the stability of the society. Democratization is neither an instrument nor an aim to improve living standards. Iraq failed democratization because it was forced to democratize itself. The democracy adopted by Europe and the United States is nothing more than double or triple standard opportunism."

As such, the regime will proceed with the same message it declared at the 2005 Baath Party Congress: the base will not be expanded; no political reform, such as the reform of election and party laws is forthcoming; the Baath party will remain the leader of society; and no criticism will be tolerated, especially on foreign policy. In fact, the regime will continue to cultivate negative nationalism, including animosity towards Lebanon and anti-Westernism, while repressing all dissent at home, including shutting down Anwar Bunni's EU-funded human rights center. The current elections reflect that.

On the other hand, the reaction of the US and Europe hasn't changed either. For so long as the regime continues with this policy, it will not get the EU Association Agreement signed any time soon. Furthermore, it has now added a demand for domestic change to the list of US demands, as reflected in the recent comments by Scott Carpenter (as well as David Welch) of the State Department, as well as the increased contacts between the Syrian opposition and the National Security Council and the State Department.


Elizabeth Picard, "Syria Returns to Democracy: The May 1973 Legislative Elections," in Elections without Choice, ed., Guy Hermet, Richard Rose, and Alain Rouguié, (London: Macmillan, 1978).

Gary Gambill, "The Myth of Syria's Old Guard,"
MEIB, Vol. 6, No. 2/3, (February-March 2004).

Raed al-Kharrat, "Dossier: Riyad Sayf,"
MEIB, Vol. 3, No. 3, (March, 2001).

Tony Badran, "Divided They Stand: The Syrian Opposition,"
Mideast Monitor, Vol. 1, No. 3, (September-October 2006).

Volker Perthes, "Syria's Parliamentary Elections: Remodeling Asad's Political Base,"
Middle East Report, No. 174, Democracy in the Arab World, (Jan. - Feb., 1992), pp. 15-18.

Volker Perthes,
The Politicial Economy of Syria Under Asad, (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995).